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In this extract from Wojciech Jagielski’s upcoming reportage “All Lara’s Wars”, Lara finally ...
2020-07-15 15:00:00

All Lara’s Wars

Pankisi Gorge and Alazani Plain as seen from Tbatani. Photo by Aleksey Muhranoff (CC BY-SA 3.0)
All Lara’s Wars
All Lara’s Wars

All Lara’s Wars is the true story of a mother who lost her sons to ISIL. Lara lives in the Pankisi Gorge, a remote valley in north-eastern Georgia, home to the tiny Kist ethnicity, descended from Chechens who crossed the Caucasus range a century ago and settled in Georgia for good. In the late 1980s Lara went to live in Grozny, where she married a Chechen and started a career as an actress as well as a family. But when the First Chechen War erupted in 1994, she took her two small sons home to Pankisi Gorge to be safe and far from the conflict. When in the Second Chechen War the Russians set out to annihilate the Chechens, freedom fighters who had embraced their Islamic identity escaped over the mountains and came to settle in Pankisi too. Fearing that her sons, now in their early teens, were falling under the influence of these Islamic fundamentalists, Lara sent them to western Europe, where their father was living. There they had opportunities to learn languages and develop careers, but even there they weren’t safe from being radicalized. Inevitably, in his early 20s, Lara’s older son, Shamil, went to join the jihad in Syria. But unlike many mothers, Lara was determined to go there and persuade him to come home. This extract describes part of her harrowing journey to find him.

Read in 11 minutes

Next morning, when the guide came to fetch her, Lara was sitting on the mattress, long since dressed, packed, and ready to continue her journey. She had yearned so badly for that moment to arrive that she couldn’t even feel the heat that set in as soon as the sun rose. Now she didn’t feel tired or in need of sleep. She kept promising herself she’d be patient and strong, but the prolonged anticipation was beyond her strength. She was afraid she was wasting time, that every second of delay meant a danger that things could go wrong, and that something would hold her up again.

They went down a floor to the computer room, where she’d waited the day before. From early morning it was full of people, and the Arab mujahideen were registering new arrivals. Once again, she couldn’t help feeling she’d been through this whole experience before and that it would keep recurring into infinity, she’d never get out of this time loop, never see Shamil, fail to save him from death, and nobody would ever find her either, she’d be stuck here forever.

Shishani, shishani,” she heard. She turned her head. An Arab in a ragged tunic pointed out some young men waiting in the passage for their turn to register at the computer terminals. Immersed in her own fears and vacillations, she hadn’t noticed that the young men—there were five of them, and they looked like teenagers—were glancing at her as if they wanted to talk to her but weren’t bold enough and were waiting for a prompt from her.

“Are you from our part of the world?” she asked in Chechen.

Eagerly, they said yes. They took it as an invitation and came up to her, looking at her with unconcealed curiosity.

“We’re from Gudermes,” explained the smallest, who looked older than the others. “Is it true you’re the mother of Abu Mohammed?” he immediately asked.

“Do you know my son?” she replied, surprised by the question.

“Abu Mohammed? Who doesn’t know him!” the Chechen said, amazed. They knew Shamil from the videos the mujahideen posted on their websites, in which the jihadists spoke about the war in Syria, encouraging volunteers to come enlist in their army. Other mujahideen shielded their faces while talking about the war, for fear of being recognized. Abu Mohammed was one of the few who spoke openly, without hiding from anyone.

“My Shamil?” She couldn’t believe it.

“Abu Mohammed,” the Chechen hesitantly corrected her. “We didn’t trust the others, but we believed every word of Abu Mohammed.”

They were curious to know if she really was on her way to Syria to visit her son, and when she confirmed it, they nodded with approval.

“But I’m not going for a visit, just to take him home, away from the war,” she said.

They burst into laughter, as if she had said something funny. It made her lose her temper.

“What about you? What are you looking for out there?” she asked angrily. “Do your mothers and fathers know you’re here?”

They laughed again. The smallest and oldest, who had already spoken to her, replied that he’d told his parents he was going to Turkey to look for work. They believed him. He was twenty, and without asking his opinion, they had arranged for him to marry a girl from the next village. It hadn’t even occurred to his father that he might be acting against the boy’s wishes. The boy had been talking to his friends for ages about enlisting for the war in Syria. Plenty of Chechen boys had gone already—they knew from them what to expect out there.

He said he didn’t want to speak for the others, but he knew many of them had gone to Syria guided by their faith. Of course it was a good thing to serve a rightful cause, though, in his case, by his own honest admission, he had come to gain an important experience in life, but also in the hope of making money. He had heard that in the war in Syria, the jihadists were allowed to loot, and many of them were doing so. Then they were exporting the goods to Turkey, selling them, and going home to the Caucasus with hard cash, or sending the money home. It was easy to find buyers for their trophies—here in Gaziantep, for instance. They came forward and asked of their own accord, or even placed specific orders. And if you struck a good bargain, they might pay a deposit too. He’d also heard that in some insurgent units, they paid a regular wage, like in the army, and were happy to accept Chechens because they regarded them as born warriors, one of whom was worth a hundred Arabs. He knew that many people would frown on him for going to war for money, but what was the difference between working as an insurgent and working as a regular soldier? If he were an army captain or a sergeant, nobody would point a finger at him for making a living out of soldiering. How was being with the insurgents any worse? As good a wage as any other. Better than slaving away on building sites or in the fields.

Another of the Chechens, a younger boy, had told his parents that he needed money to go study in Europe. They had borrowed dollars from within the family, and he’d used them to buy a ticket to Istanbul. He hadn’t told them the truth because they would have tried to stop him—they’d have taken away his passport—but he believed that for a Muslim, participating in a war like the one in Syria was a sacred duty. That was what her son Abu Mohammed said on the recruiting videos. He wanted to fight on the side of his Muslim brothers and sisters against the godless Bashar Assad from Damascus and his army.

“Did any of you think of your mothers?” she said, hearing a latent, pleading note in her own voice, and that angered her. “They brought you into the world. You owe obedience to them, not the emirs. God will punish you for the wrongs you are doing them. Your sacrifice won’t please Him at all.”

She wanted to add that the Koran forbade treating your mother like that, but she stopped herself in time. They probably knew the Holy Scripture in detail, definitely better than she did. So all she said was that disobeying your mother was a cardinal sin, and then the conversation broke off, because the Arabs sitting at the computers summoned the Chechens over. The young men went and sat down at tables to fill in forms and then stood with the mujahideen for photographs as proof of a successful enlistment. Later on, she found out that for each photograph with a new conscript, the recruiters received a payment. One of the Arabs came up to Lara and, without saying a word, handed her a telephone.

“It’s Shamil. They’re going to bring you to me right away,” she heard her son’s voice through the receiver.

The Arab mujahideen collected Lara and the five Chechens and escorted them outside, where a minibus and its driver were waiting for them. They told them to take all their things with them. After a half-hour drive, they stopped, and the Arabs told them to transfer to two passenger cars. Another fifteen minutes, maybe more, and they stopped again. This time they were told to get out and take their luggage with them.

“This is the border,” one of the Chechens said quietly.

They were led to a low barrack. Outside it, they were separated. The Chechens were told to get into another car, which immediately drove off. A dark-skinned man came up to Lara and instructed her to go inside the barrack and wait until he came for her. Once again, she was alone, and her fear and uncertainty returned. As they got out of the car, the Chechens had pointed at a chicken-wire fence visible in the distance. Only that far to go now, just those few hundred yards divided her from the place where Shamil was waiting for her.

The barrack was in semi-darkness, but she spotted a wooden bench against the wall and a woman sitting on it. She looked like a Chechen. She was wearing a flowery headscarf tied just as the Caucasian village women usually tied theirs.

“Going to your son?” the woman asked in Russian.

“Yes, my son.” Lara sighed.

“They’ll let you in?”

“I think so, he called to say he’s waiting.”

“Then you’re lucky. Mine refuses to see me. I’ve been waiting here for nine days, but every day he calls to tell them not to let me through.”

The dark-skinned Arab appeared in the doorway. He nodded to Lara and gestured as if to tell her to continue on her own, straight ahead.

“Go, go, before yours changes his mind too,” the woman said.

Lugging her heavy bags, Lara trailed toward the Syrian border, ever nearer and more visible. Now she could see not just the chicken-wire fence but some people standing behind it too. And a heavy iron gate through which the road led into Syria. There was just one, final frontier post separating her from it, where uniformed men were checking travel documents. She handed over her passport, and the soldier slowly turned the pages. He looked up and asked her a question. She couldn’t understand. He repeated it, impatiently this time.

Shishani, shishani,” she automatically mumbled.

He barked something else at her, waving her passport under her nose.

“No visa,” he hissed and tossed the passport to the floor.

She picked it up and obligingly handed it to him again. Again he hurled the booklet to the floor and showed Lara that she had to leave, that he wasn’t letting her through the gate into Syria.

She fell on her knees before him, begging, sobbing, and trying to grasp his hand. Her lament changed into howling, a wail of despair.

“Help me!” she pleaded. “Does anyone here speak Chechen? Or Russian? Somebody, please help me!”

There was confusion, and some soldiers came running. Soon, one of them approached her with a cell phone.

“What do you need, lady?” someone asked down the phone in Russian with an Arabic accent.

“My son! I’m going to my son, but they won’t let me through. His name is Abu Mohammed! Shishani!” she cried into the receiver.

“Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.”

He told her to hand the phone to the commander of the frontier post. They talked for a while, and then the officer waved her onward.    

As she walked toward the iron gate, she felt she was crossing something much more important and more ominous than the line dividing the territories of two separate countries. She was entering a world she didn’t want to know and that didn’t interest her. If it were up to her, she’d rather not know it existed at all. She glanced fearfully at the people clinging to the wire fence on the other side. They looked as if they were in a cage, dangerous, uncivilized, like wild animals. She was horrified at the thought that once she stepped through the gate, she’d be among them.

She walked through and stopped on the Syrian side, trying to spot Shamil in the crowd. He was meant to be here waiting for her. Had something happened? Hadn’t he come? She searched for him, scanning the men’s faces. They all looked identical to her, gray with dust, ragged and unshaven. Could it be that she didn’t recognize her own son? Her heart began to pound as if trying to leap out of her chest.

She didn’t spot him. It was he who saw her, the moment she stopped in the open gate. He saw her looking around, trying to find him, bending under the weight of her luggage. She didn’t even notice him when he was already walking toward her, pushing his way through the crowd. Only when he stood right next to her and laid a hand on her arm did she look at him in surprise and horror. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t noticed him approaching, or that she hadn’t sensed his presence.

He hugged her tight, and she burst into tears.

“It’s all right now.” He stroked her cheek. “We’re going home, you can rest.”

This is an excerpt from “All Lara’s Wars” by Wojciech Jagielski, to be published in the US by Seven Stories Press on 13th October 2020. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

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Wojciech Jagielski

is a Polish journalist, correspondent, and the author of numerous books. He reports on conflict zones, mainly in the Transcaucasus, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Africa. His writing continues the tradition of reportage established by Ryszard Kapuściński, who was Jagielski’s mentor and friend.